Violence against women in Argentina, as in many parts of the world, comes in all forms. Recent news reports from across the country have highlighted cases of domestic abuse, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking. These cases are nothing out of the ordinary in the perpetual cycle of violence against women that has been entrenched in segments of societies for centuries.
The issue has made it into the campaign for the upcoming elections too, with candidate for deputy Margarita Stolbizer calling for a “public state of emergency” in relation to gender violence. “There is an increase in [gender] violence and we have to work on creating public policies to eradicate it,” she said on Monday.
In Argentina, women’s movements, non-governmental as well as governmental organisations, and other community and religious groups are already at work to protect women at risk and support those that have been abused, while increasing the prosecution rates of culprits.
While a large portion of civil society aims to empower and promote social policies that protect women, little coverage and attention has been given to an important aspect of the problem – the perpetrators of such acts and how they came to become abusers. Men that have violated women or been involved in human trafficking of individuals, are more often than not removed from the debate once they are locked in prison. At-risk boys and men that could portray signs of abusive tendencies are not the focus of social prevention policies.
As this epidemic sweeps over the country, it is fair to wonder whether more could be done to include this missing piece in the gender violence puzzle.
Dominance Systems: Keeping Men Out of the Picture
According to Jackson Katz, a US author and educator specialising in gender violence prevention, gender has become synonymous with ‘women’, taking men completely out of the picture when it comes to combatting the rise in violence and finding solutions for the greater impunity in male culture that allows such incidents to occur.
“Calling gender violence a woman’s issue is part of the problem. It gives men an excuse to not take action,” Katz stated in a recent TED talk. Referring to the ‘dominant system theory’ introduced by linguist Julia Penelope, Katz explains that by referring solely to women, we “reproduce dominance systems, which is to say that the dominant force or group [ie., the man] is not challenged to think about their dominance because that is one of the key characteristics of power and privilege – the ability to go unexamined, lacking introspection – in fact, rendered invisible in the discourse of issues that are predominantly about men.”
To illustrate his theory, Katz conducts a sentence structure exercise that is often seen in gender violence discourse. “Literally, the way we use our language conspires to keep our attention off of men.”
Ratz writes on a board: ‘John beat Mary. Mary was beaten by John.’ - “Already the focus is shifted from John.”
‘Mary was beaten.’ - “Now John is out of the picture.”
‘Mary was battered. Mary is a battered woman.’ - “Mary’s very identity (what was done to her by John) is as a battered woman but John has left the conversation.”
This use of language keeps the attention on the victim and removes men, and their responsibility, from the picture. Overall, understanding men and treating their issues has been an under-developed element to the problem of violence against women.
The Argentine Situation
A recent study carried out by the national Ministry of Justice shows that 5,607 victims of human trafficking for forced labour and sexual exploitation have been rescued between April 2008 and August 2013. With the creation of a dedicated trafficking unit and the introduction of various laws on human trafficking, since 2008, 122 people have been convicted and 511 are currently facing charges in Argentina.
The state structure for responding to victims of human trafficking and the crime itself is relatively new in Argentina. As Facundo Lujo from the anti-trafficking organisation Fundación Alameda states: “We are not aware of any kind of social policy or protocol to help or contain the aggressor – we know of course, that the main path in dealing with aggressors is to report them to the police. A lot of effort has been made in the last few years to raise awareness [of people trafficking] among the police, the courts, the public, and other organisations of society – but none of it has focused, to our knowledge, specifically on rehabilitating or preventing aggressors from becoming so.”
The 2008 law against trafficking, which was amended in 2012, has given way to various awareness campaigns aimed at the potential victims, alongside direct assistance to individuals who are survivors of the crime. Work carried out by NGOs and other social actors have focused on the prevention side of entering an abusive or exploitative situation – for example, understanding the signs of an abusive partner, how to become empowered to escape a violent situation, or how to spot dangerous clues that could lead to a trafficking situation.
What appears to be missing, however, is a campaign aimed at the perpetrators of violence and aggression. Lujo explains: “It is not just a trafficking or a domestic violence issue, it’s also a cultural issue – a macho culture that is engrained in Argentine, and South American, society, which is a direct link and cause to such acts of aggression and which needs to be addressed.”
An Early Shift in Cultural Dynamics?
Is there space to provide gender sensitivity training in schools? Provincial governments provide a number of general information sessions on socially sensitive topics in schools around Argentina. Lujo states that these sessions tend to be short-term and concentrating on a topic in the public eye generated by social pressure, for example, drug use, road accidents, and intra-family violence.
None, however, have been aimed at shaping or guiding young boys through their gender perspectives. According to Fundación Alameda, there are currently no long-term programmes aimed at providing gender sensitivity training from a young age.
As Mariana Rocio from the NGO Basta de Trata, based in Córdoba, also confirms, while a law on providing sexual education in schools was passed by Congress seven years ago, there are very few schools that actually implement the course. “Interdisciplinary courses on sexual education from a young age are very important for the healthy development of a young man, but I must insist there are no efficient social policies being implemented, and even less on those that focus on the ‘demand’ side of human trafficking. We really need more programmes and educators that will concentrate on this issue [preventing development of male aggressors.]”
Rocio explains that the barrier to implementing such courses has fallen predominantly on the lack of funding available within provincial governments to do so. Furthermore, a lack of understanding of how important such courses are has also created an unwillingness to push the agenda further within the schooling curriculum.
A Change in Approach
Within the international and national legal framework for combatting trafficking and violence against women, the focus on eradication of such crimes is based on prevention and direct assistance to the victim and prosecution for the perpetrators.
A specific programme in Argentina that does take into account male aggressors, apart from putting them in prison, is the ‘Hombres Violentos’ (‘Violent Men’) project developed by the Buenos Aires City government through the Ministry of Social Development. Under the General Directorate for Women, the programme was introduced in 1997 to provide counselling to abusive men. It is aimed at addressing “intra-family violence” and has registered 1,900 cases since their inception, with 197 cases reported since January last year. This programme is designed specifically for family domestic issues and the man voluntarily attends counselling sessions, although the condition is that he is not allowed to return to his family home unless he takes part in the project. From the research conducted, this seems to be a unique project to Buenos Aires.
Raul Mattiozzi, a psychologist specialised in family violence and coordinator of ‘Hombres Violentos’, states: “Abused women are present all over the country and they are reporting crimes committed against them, therefore we thought it was necessary to create this programme to contain the aggressor. What good is it for a woman to undergo treatment or report domestic abuse if you do not deal with the aggressor? We hold 20 years of experience in gender violence and all over the country you have assistance programmes for female victims, but there are no programmes attending to the men creating this issue.”
Another example, and one of its kind, of men becoming involved in the gender picture relates to the organisation Colectivo de Varones Antipatriarcales (Anti-patriarchal Males’ Collective.) This collective of men campaign for women’s rights and have rallied publicly in Rosario, La Plata, Mendoza, and Córdoba. Their aim is to promote a positive image of men as actors within the gender violence problem by promoting and supporting women’s rights. Their focus, however, is not to target men themselves with a view of preventing potential abusers from becoming so.
These are initial steps that have been taken to address the underlying issues that may generate and perpetuate violence against women. A long-term vision, however, of how shaping male culture and violent tendencies can significantly aid the battle against gender violence appears to be missing from national and provincial social policies.
“Argentina is a very chauvinistic, patriarchal society. It is the dominant culture as seen in media and in history. Even in crime stories, when men murdered women it would be called a ‘crime of passion’ (…) it was portrayed as though it was a crime committed out of love. They portray [the agressor] as an animal that cannot be controlled (…) this is wrong and reflective of a typical machista attitude,” Lujo notes.
The short-term effect of current campaigns aimed at victim prevention will at best prevent individuals from entering violent or exploitative situations. The long-term reward of creating social policies that aim to break down the cultural and individual factors that create aggressors or perpetrators may be the eradication of the root causes of violence against women. This can in turn create a greater positive change on specific aspects of male culture today which will benefit both genders.
Do Argentines think males should be more integrated in the debate regarding violence against women? Click here to find out.